Reclaiming Common Ground: past and present, part 2


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

Based on Heather Menzies’ presentation at Camp Gabriola on August 26, 2016.

Part 2 of 2

I won’t go into what killed the commons. Nor will I risk being a romantic and nostalgic by suggesting that it always worked out well.  And I certainly don’t want to suggest that we try to ‘go back.’ But we can learn from it. Because its practices and its ethos were distinctive – they  are both alive and relevant today.

This is evident in Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 book Governing the Commons, in recognition of which she was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Surveying current commoning practices, she argued that the self-governing commons is an alternative to running society and its institutions either on a corporate model or a state bureaucratic model.

The key is its de-centering of decision-making authority, through ‘poly-centric’ layers of distributed power resting on the direct accountability, direct democracy of local self-organizing, self-governing and self-resourcing initiatives.

I’ve found evidence of this legacy in 19th and early 20th century rural Canada. For example, there were communing practices in the over 2,000 farmer-organized and self-governed cheese factory cooperatives that dotted the  Ontario countryside from the 1860s to the 1950s, and in the self-organized, self-governing self-help tradition of Agricultural societies and fairs and other farmer organizations.

It’s also evident  in the legacy of the CCF,  the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The word, commonwealth was originally  common weal, or well-being and welfare. Interestingly, it figured in some of the founding documents of Canada, notably the Quebec Act –  where John Ralston Saul (in A Fair Country) interpreted it to mean “the fulfillment of the self within the shared wellbeing of society.”

It also figured in some of the clergy-led protest around the Enclosure movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries when the commons were enclosed and turned into private property. They called themselves “Common Wealth Men,” and both spoke from the pulpit and penned pamphlets championing “a Christian Commonwealth based on distributive justice,” as one put it. J.S. Woodsworth was their direct descendant and brought this kind of vision to the creation of the CCF, according to Walter Young in his history of the CCF, The Anatomy of a Party: the National CCF.

In Young’s account, its intention was to “transform Canadian politics from the politics of special and sectional interests to the politics of collective concern for the welfare of the individual in a society collectively organized” and to establish a “cooperative commonwealth in Canada.” Its founding took place over the course of several important gatherings of first labour groups and then of farmer groups, with these coming together with another important group – the League for Social Reconstruction – to officially found the CCF as a political party.

It remained largely a social movement, though its concrete successes  –  old age pensions, associated with Woodsworth and Medicare, associated with Tommy Douglas – derived from its also going the distance of being a political party. (It left unresolved how the small-p politics of a social movement can feed the big-p politics of a political party without either becoming subservient to the other.)


A scene from the CCF Camp Woodsworth on Gabriola Island, B.C. Photo credit: Gabriola Museum Archives.

In honouring and learning from the CCF’s legacy as a social movement, it’s important to remember its more social and cultural aspects: that it was about people as whole human beings coming together in community, and together tilling the soil of common ground, shared values, vision and commitment. They did this through shared learning and getting-to-know you opportunities – like the CCF summer camp here on Gabriola, but also including book clubs and study groups, augmented by the intellectual ferment of the League for Social Reconstruction, and publications like the Canadian Forum magazine which published poetry as well as polemics. According to Young’s book, fellowship was important, not just as a by-product of all these gatherings but as something to be championed in its own right. I think of it as the social glue and grease of cooperation.

The federation concept in their name was also important. It’s a form of scaling up dialogue and political organization in a way that preserves the integrity of the constituent more local parts. Regional conventions allowed people to come together representing an array of local organizations, and to genuinely talk and listen their way toward consensus around policies, while also developing a leadership capable of navigating the larger political arenas.

What can we take from this legacy to guide and inspire us today? I think it affirms the importance of a lot that’s already going on here on Gabriola that is cultivating common ground,  often using commons-like practices in the process. Of course, there’s the Gabriola Commons itself, which consciously builds on the traditional commons model: with its self-organization and self-governance, its commoning of knowledge in monthly council meetings, its Saturday morning work bees and post-work bee lunches of hearty soup & bread, and its conservation covenant that seeks to conserve both the social and the natural in what could point the way to an ecological contract.

There’s also GALTT, GYRO, Sustainable Gabriola and Island Futures, and all the self-organizing, self-governance capacity that has arisen from these groups to inspire and sustain other initiatives like Gertie, the community bus service and the GabEnergy solar hydro project and more.

On the cultural side, a similar DIY self-organizing spirit animates a lot of the projects that have emerged under the leadership of people like Leah Hokanson with her Lulu Performing Arts Society, plus the Gabriola Arts Council and the local library, much of it broadly inclusive and participatory.

In a book called No Culture, No Future,  Simon Brault, who is currently the head of the Canada Council of the Arts, summarized years of working to make culture a part of planning for the revitalization of Montreal. “Cultural participation in all its forms… has become a goal to strive for so that …cities don’t fall apart due to the economic, social, linguistic and cultural disparities,” he wrote. The goal is to rebuild and restore common ground in our social and political environments.

For those of us in rural areas like Gabriola and the Salish Sea, I think the goal is slightly larger: to heal the disparities of habitat, and to extend the sense of shared habitat from the strictly social of a built habitat to the living habitat of the land. One way to do this is by learning how to be allies to the Indigenous peoples of this land in their journeys of healing and reconnection with the land, and honouring our obligations as treaty people.

None of this is easy. None of this will happen overnight. There’s a lot of healing and recovery to be done: restoring agency to people, and extending the possibility of this to non-human others; honouring and recovering voice; and cultivating the common ground necessary to receive and support the seeds of renewal, gradually replacing a social contract of rights with an ecological one of shared responsibilities and right relations.

The Commons as a fable for our time – a fable with teeth. Part I

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrby feather
Facebookby feather

“The People’s Climate” Blog Series, Part 2


Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good is an admirable, even noble, vision, and expresses very eloquently what will have to be done if humanity is to escape the current race towards disaster.”– Noam Chomsky

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

An uplands pasture near the ancestral Menzies lands in Scotland.

Fable is an old-fashioned word for a story meant to convey a useful lesson. I noticed it used in several reviews of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything on climate change and what to do about it in the context of addressing what the reviewer sensed as a gap in an otherwise excellent book: the absence of a vision to unite alternative action or, as one put it, a fable. I think the commons offers such a vision. This first of two blog posts is about being open to ancient story and vision.

Like so many activist writers, I knew what I was against: letting an overheated global corporate economy remain on a collision course with our increasingly distressed planet. But I couldn’t name what to do about this in terms meaningful enough for a social movement to sustain action on them.

I kept banging my head against ‘alternative job opportunities’ and other vagueries. Until I read Aboriginal environmental activist Clayton Thomas-Muller’s 2010 essay “The Seventh Generation” where he wrote: “something deep inside me snapped. I quit trying to be Canadian,” settling instead in the knowledge that “I was Cree.”

I packed a bag and headed to the Highlands of Scotland hoping to find remnants, faint echoes and lingering intimations of what it was like when my ancestors lived in direct relation with the earth, and called themselves “Cruithne,” simply “the people” in Gaelic. One day I tracked the small symbols on an ordinance map marking the ruins of stone shieling huts, seasonal dwellings in the upland pasturing commons where my forebears spent their summers, from Beltane to Llamas time on the old pagan calendar. The path that would take me there began at a lay-by beside a single-track road that ran around the back of Ben Lawrs, one of the biggest mountains in the Highlands. The path was a rock-studded affair that wound its way around bits of fern-covered bog, up over ridges and finally to a lovely hung valley where even I could tell the grass was taller and thicker if not positively lush.

Knowing that this area was land long inhabited not just by my father’s father’s people, the Menzies, but also those on his mother’s side and one side of my Mum’s family too, I walked into that valley as though I was coming home. I took in the feel of the ground rough and gnarled against the soles of my feet, the mist in the air billowing gently against my face. I heard the water in a stream that came boisterously down from the saddle-back ridge at the far end of the valley, and saw where it pooled beside a cluster of tumbled down stones that, yes, must be the ruins of the shieling huts, called bothies that I’d been reading about. One was more intact than others, the angle of the corner stones still sharp and clear, some cavities in the stone walls where my ancestors would have stored the cheese they’d made through the summer, plus the cooking tools, the horn and wooden spoons they used in eating. I was drawn to what seemed to be the entrance, a single slab of stone still marking the lentil above it. Some ancestors might well have shaped that stone, I realized, using an iron chisel forged from bog iron that they would have found under the peat during their summers here. My great, great grannies and aunties would have gone in and out this way, carrying armfuls of dried heather that served as mattresses for sleeping in the bothies.

I stood at the entranceway as though it was a portal to another time, and in a way it was. So I just stood there, immersing myself in the sense of this, open to what the spirits of my ancestors might have to tell me, should they by chance be present in the mist that was gathering, thicker now, in the valley. I had come to a place where my forebears had lived connected to the earth: as responsible inhabitants of a habitat, and it was helping me get my bearings.

Common means “together as one. For my ancestors on the common lands of the Highlands, it meant land and people together as one, one inter-relationship. It also meant negotiating that relationship in daily work, knowledge and governance practices – commons practices that persisted in some glens like this one right up until the Clearances (which I will unpack in later blog posts). These practices have recently been vindicated as the basis of a genuine alternative to market or state governance of land and resources, notably through the work of Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics in recognition of it.

To be continued…